Rafe entered the common area of Winter Home, followed by Wilf and Molly. She made a show of unkinking her back and sauntered around the nearest hearths, losing her shadows along the way. Children’s eyes followed her as she moved. Some were rushing through the last of their dinner, but most had finished and were poised, waiting to see where she would alight. She heard snatches of manners being taught (”…had her dinner,” “…clean shirt…”, “Don’t waste…”) as she lengthened her stride and targeted the Pig and Toad. Their parents wouldn’t let them follow her there.
“So, what’ll it be, Auntie?” Of course it would be Maud who was tending food tonight.
“Whatever is hot. Is there any ale?”
“For you, Auntie, yes, there’s ale. And turnip stew with jerky.”
Rafe looked surprised. “There’s not ale for everyone?”
“Well, no, there is. Two pints a day. But most of that lot, on the bench, have theirs with breakfast and lunch The rest of us have already finished dinner and are waiting for a story to begin.”
Maud left, giving Rafe a moment to survey the room. There had been changes over the two weeks she’d been gone. Children weren’t wandering from fire to fire. A couple of nervous youths sat directly in front of the ice room door. And the room was full. Only the cabal she had just left were still absent. No one was keeping private. No one was strolling in the moonlight. Were they waiting for her news? Jenna’s decision?
“We stick together,” said Maud placing the ale on the table and keeping an empty bowl in her hand. “No one wants to seem like we’re holding anything back.”
“There are shortages already?” That was odd. Even though there was no eager sharing with strangers in most of the places they’d seen, it had been possible to get ale for coin. And while coin was useless in Riverside, she had not known that common property was so jealously guarded.
“No,” said Maud. She gestured with the stew bowl toward the central fire pit. “But we had riders come in from the east, from Pig Snout, just after you left. Ma and Barton both said that we’d best keep just one cook pot after that, and make sure we had enough ale kept by.”
Rafe watched Maud wind her way through the family groups. She returned with a full bowl, and set it on the table saying nothing, but drawing Rafe’s attention to the speaker’s bench with a tilt of her head.
The kids were all being antsy. They started to gather around the bench, watching Rafe at her table, following each spoonful of turnip to her mouth. Some of them were even chewing with her. Then Auntie
Ern Finn broke the crowd apart and settled her self on the bench. She clapped her hands together, like a wood cutter make sure he grip would be strong. That got everyone’s attention.
“Well, then,” she said, “I expect you are all waiting for a story tonight.” Her deep voice was soft, but it hummed under the noise and cut conversation as if she had actually wielded an axe.
Ern Finn, Rafe…” Rafe grimaced, not concerned about being the Teller for the evening, but because the woman she knew as Auntie, was now Grammy to the whole village.
Ern Finn cut off the small objector. “Let’s not bother Rafe tonight. She’s had a long hard ride, and a harder conversation with Jenna Smith, I suspect.” Auntie Ern Finn settled her skirts and apron and held out her hand for the ration of ale due her as the Teller tonight.
“But she’s got new stories.” This complainer was different from the first, and perhaps a bit older.
“Ah! Well I have a new story. One we never tell, but perhaps should.” Auntie
Ern Finn met Rafe’s eyes and nodded once. Rafe knew what was coming and that this was all the warning she would get.
“This is a story of an accident of birth, of a great burden, and naive misuse of power. There are very few people alive who know the truth of this story, but true it is. I know it. I was there.”
There was silence. Auntie
Ern Finn took a pull on her ale, sparing a last glance at Rafe, and began the story.
One time, back in the days, there was a little baby girl born to a couple. She was their first child and they had hopes for her beyond belief. Before they even knew would she be a boy or girl, they waited to see would their baby be big, like its Ba, and maybe follow his trade? Or would it have clever hands, like its Ma, and take up hers? They did all the usual things that any parents do. They tried out different names, they sewed clothes, made a cradle. They imagined how their child would be with them and the things it might do. The remembered the nursery songs they had grown up with, and practiced singing them to the round bulge in the Ma’s belly. They believed their baby would be extraordinary in the same way all parents believe.
In due time the baby was born, and they discovered they hadn’t imagined wildly enough. The mid-wife caught the child. She barely had time to notice that she held a girl baby, and be glad it was drawing breath, when first cry shattered the air and her spectacles exploded into a million tiny pieces. The windows broke and so did the lamp chimney, the looking glass, and the water pitcher.
We heard shouting from the other room where the men were waiting to toast their friend and his first taste of being a father. We learned that their whiskey tumblers had cracked spilling the toast on the floor.
At the time we thought a djinn had attended the birth. We called a priest to give a blessing, say prayers, and cast her own spells. In the meantime, they quieted the child at the new Ma’s breast.
The priest arrived quickly and did what she could.The baby seemed happy enough. The parents were happy, too, and attended to the daughter’s needs so quickly that she hardly ever even whimpered. They did everything they had planned. The baby preferred her Ba’s voice when he sang, and loved playing with her Ma’s long silky hair. They got used to being three instead of just two.
A month went by and the new family was ready to start visiting. Family and friends had already been to the house, bringing gifts for the new arrival, and teasing the parents about their new roles. Now it was time for them to return the favor and bring a small gift to everyone who had visited them. The first place they visited was the new mother’s Ma, the Grandma. The mother bundled up her daughter, because she had been warned of the dangers of letting the child get cold, even though it was early summer. She slung the baby onto her back, fastened the carry-sling tight, picked up a loaf wrapped in a bread cloth of her own weaving, and headed off, thinking about all the stories she could tell about how adorable her daughter was. As the Ma walked through the village with her baby, they happened to pass through a cloud of mosquitoes and one happened to bite the baby. Just as any child will do, she drew in a lung full of air and screamed at the outrage.
And at the same time every single window on the street broke, shattered, from the smallest attic window, to the big one at the Mercantile.
You know, because this is a story, that the one caused the other. But then, because no one had ever heard such a thing, then it just seemed odd. We would have blamed a djinn, or a haunt readily enough if it weren’t for the next thing that happened.
The new mother quickly gave her daughter a sucker, and kept on the road to the Grandma’s house. I’m sure she looked over her shoulder every so often, but hustled on, anxious to get some comfort from her own Ma. She knocked on the big wooden door with the big iron knocker fastened in the middle, the one her husband had made for Mid Winter. Her own Ma, the new Grandma, opened the door and welcomed her family inside. The new Ma unfastened her carry-sling and slid the baby into the crook of her arm, just as slick as you please.
This is where the next thing happened. That soon on the heels of the baby crying in the street that there could be no mistake. The Grandma leaned over, as Grandma’s do, and took a little squeeze of the baby’s round rosy cheek. You know how they do that. But before she could say “O! what a scrumptious little pumpkin pie!” the baby sucked in her breath and screamed. This time there could be no doubt. Bang! Every piece of glass, and every piece of pottery in the room exploded. And in the next room, every bit cracked.
It was not the sort of news that a family could hush up. Pretty soon the Ma couldn’t take her baby anywhere there was something that might break. Her family told her outright not to visit – or to visit alone. More and more she left the girl with the Ba and went off visiting on her own.
The girl was happy enough in her Ba’s shop. He worked with nothing she could easily break, and as long as she was kept dry and fed, she was contented enough, and a scream now and then did not do much harm. Since he worked with fire, not having glass in the windows was not much of a problem. Oiled cloth would do as well, and he learned to keep water in a wooden container
But the Ma was another story. There was plenty in the house that could break, and using wood felt like a sacrifice. She was miserable. She had dreamed of having a child who was special, but not special like this. The Ma had wanted a child who could sing like a dream, or weave fairy patterns in cloth, or cook or build like magic. She had not wanted a child who could break anything made of glass or pottery. That was not the kind of special she had wanted. The more she despaired, the more the baby cried, and the more things broke.
The baby had been born in the early spring, just after we all moved out of Winter Home. So by the time it got cold, and the daylight sparse, the girl could already talk a bit, and her Ba, at any rate, could reason with her some. She had learned to ask for what she wanted, most of the time. And her Ba took care that she was happy.
But in a crowded place like Winter Home, it is impossible to keep things cheery all the time. Other children teased her. She saw the toys they had, that she wanted. Kind people offered her treats and she wanted more. She wasn’t really old enough to have all the words she needed. Those few who thought others were just being cruel about how odd the little girl was — they soon learned different. If the Ma got sympathy from some she was blamed by others. It was an unpleasant winter for all.
Time passed and the girl learned to tame her voice. Perhaps too much control. She was a minx and not always well behaved. What had first been accident became, from time to time, malice. But she was not without friends, and those she had were true to her. The Ma learned that not all her children would be afflicted with strangeness, and she learned to love them at any rate. And the Ba adored his first child. He saw her strength. He cherished both her anger and her control. Some said he coddled her, even urging her to get beyond her place. When the day came that she went Sojourning, there were many in Riverside who were relieved, not least of all her Ma. But her Ba grieved for her always.
Ern Finn finished the last of her ale and, again, met Rafe’s eyes. Rafe saluted with her own mug. “Fairly told, Auntie Ern Finn . Thank you.”
“Rest up. I won’t tell your tale for you tomorrow night. You’ll have to speak for yourself.”